Discovery without boundaries? The new building for the Francis Crick Institute

We don’t personally know any of the 1250 bio-medical research scientists who will come together in the new Francis Crick Institute later this year, but if they are anything like us, they are people who can’t rest until they can explain how and why things work as they do, based on experiment, data and evidence. For them the focus is the functioning of the human body; for us it is the functioning of buildings that allow humans to work within them. And the new building, squeezed between Somers Town and St Pancras station in London, that will house the Institute, is a bold and ambitious design, explicitly intended to maximise interaction between the research scientists who will work within it. So why do we, and they, think it will allow more interaction and collaboration and what evidence is needed to prove it?

Let’s look in a bit more detail at what the building is trying to achieve. The Institute’s stated purpose is to bring together multidisciplinary teams including academics, doctors, engineers and computer specialists ‘with the common aim of improving people’s lives through research into today’s biggest health challenges’. Peppered throughout the Crick’s 5 stated strategic priorities are references to a ‘distinctive’ approach to research that relies on breaking down boundaries between disciplines and drawing in the expertise, not only from those co-located in the new building, but through fostering partnerships with other centres of excellence across the UK. So other than the fact that everyone is under one roof, how is it that the building design aims to support these objectives?

The website of architects HOK who worked on this project with PLP Architecture, tells us something about what has been done. And we were also lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the almost finished building a couple of weeks ago. It is an impressive structure: 980,000 sqft to house 1500 people including 250 support staff. Each of the four laboratory floors are configured into quadrants which house ‘laboratory neighborhoods’ connected by two atria which cross at the centre of each floor to accommodate a large shared breakout space set up for informal meetings and with tea/coffee making facilities. There are additional walkways and informal meeting areas, which criss-cross the main atria between quadrants and visibility between floors across the atria is high, through the extensive use of glazing. The floors are not only connected by lift cores, but also by a central spiral staircase.

Typical write up area © HOK and Glowfrog Studios

The idea is that scientists from different fields and joining the Crick from different institutions will as much as possible be spread around the building and occupy adjoining laboratory spaces. The labs are open to each other via internal corridors, and can be easily re-configured as the need for new research projects emerges, so that territories are less likely to be established. Each scientist will have their own ‘write-up’ desk in open plan space outside each lab, where the allocations are again intended to mix up disciplines. The offices of the principal investigators (the heads of the different labs) are deliberately designed to be too small for team meetings, to encourage use of the large breakout spaces on each floor, which in turn should make it more likely that others will be aware of what’s going on in each project and potentially make a helpful contribution. The typical floorplate does not in fact include any formal cellular meeting rooms, these are co-located near the entrance on the ground and first floor, so on your way there you could in theory bump into anyone from any part of the Institute. Also outside the floor based configuration, is the ground floor and a 450 seater restaurant, where it is hoped that scientists will sit together and share ideas.

In the latest edition of Wired, Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick is quoted as attributing the idea to Francis Crick, the scientist who revealed the genetic code:

“[he] was an advocate of discussing scientific ideas over food and drink. He believed the best collaborative ideas arose during informal moments.”

It is on the ground floor where the openness to the outside world is also designed in, something uncharacteristic of at least some of the previous homes of the scientists moving here. A 450 seat auditorium and exhibition space are accessible from the public side of the security barrier, but nevertheless the visitor should still clearly get a sense of activity beyond and vice versa.

View of the reception area and auditorium from upper level. © HOK and Glowfrog Studios

So far so good, but how will anyone know if the combination of all these design features is working to get the collaboration that the Institute is hoping for? In fact the combination, or rather configuration, may well be the key.

While the Crick’s Director of Research, Jim Smith, likens the four interconnected quadrants in the new building to a chromosome (which it resembles if viewed from above), we think that another, related, analogy works well here. The intelligence of DNA (Crick’s major discovery together with Watson) lies in its structure and sequencing, where four different subunits are paired and pairs are arranged in a specific sequence. This configuration gives rise to endless combinations of genetic code. Buildings are very much the same: they arrange spatial subunits (for instance workspace, lab space, circulation, communal spaces) in a certain order and with specific connections. We would argue that the intelligence of a space lies in its layout or configuration, that is, the way in which different spaces are connected to each other in a complex system. This is important because configuration and connection drive movement flows through a building, and from movement flows, encounter, interaction and collaboration may follow. We can use computational techniques (known as Space Syntax) to calculate this inherent connectivity of the internal space and then compare the results with the actual utilisation, movement and interaction patterns that are occurring, gathered through observation and organisation network analysis. So with this approach, it is possible to get hard data to measure that elusive ‘collaboration’ and prove the efficacy of what has been done. Or if it turns out people, or perhaps the right people, are not bumping into or interacting with each other quite as much as was hoped for, any spatial reasons for it can be identified and potentially fixed.

The Crick Institute, once in occupation, looks set to be a fascinating building to submit to scientific study. We are sure there is much to be discovered.


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